The novel begins in the upper-class Brooke household in Tipton, inhabited by Mr. Brooke and his two nieces, Dorothea and Celia. Dorothea and her sister Celia are well-connected, sensible girls from a good family; they believe in economy of dress and are rather mainstream in their beliefs and behavior. Dorothea is drawn to sacrifice and grand, intellectual things, while Celia has fewer aspirations in the world of academics and religion. Their uncle, Mr. Brooke, is careful with his money, and rather Puritan in his disposition, which Dorothea is also.
Two suitors, Sir Chettam and Mr. Casaubon, make visits to the house; Sir Chettam likes Dorothea, but Dorothea believes he is more inclined toward her sister. Celia has more sense than her sister, but Dorothea is very steadfast in her Puritan ways.
Middlemarch is supposed to be a microcosm for semi-rural England in the early 19th century; the novel takes place in the years around 1830. The novel is more focused on upper- and middle-class people than on anyone of lower financial and social status; most of these people are not at all representative of the average Briton of the period in terms of income, lifestyle, etc. However, appropriate gender roles are represented and commented upon in the novel, and even in the first chapter; Celia is more representative of the proper woman in this time period, with Dorothea embodying many less desirable qualities.
Dorothea, Celia, and Mr. Brooke do not represent the average family either; with Mr. Brooke being so averse to women, it is a mystery how Dorothea and Celia were brought up, and by whom. Though it was not uncharacteristic in this period for women to die in childbirth and leave children behind, Dorothea and Celia are in a very interesting situation. Orphaned children with competent relations would likely be left to a married female relative, or to another mother-like figure. Mr. Brooke must have hired governesses and other women to raise the girls, because he certainly could not have handled them himself, nor would it seem socially proper.
Through the comparison of Celia and Dorothea in this chapter, Eliot conveys what were and were not considered suitable qualities for women during this time period. Dorothea is a woman with strong opinions, who is more interested in the world of faith and intellect than in reality; these qualities are considered strange and undesirable, according to Eliot, and are impediments toward her getting married. Socially, in Eliot's world and in the world of this novel, a silent, self-sacrificing, weak-willed woman was still ideal, though Eliot's high regard of Dorothea and her eccentricities is a criticism of this ideal model.
Celia is clearly more suited to the time period in which she lives, able to be herself and have her own opinions without appearing out of place. But, then the question arisesshould Dorothea become more suited to her society, or should society have to learn to accept different kinds of women? This is one theme in the novel that is very pertinent to Dorothea's life. It is true that Dorothea has a lot to learn, since she lives more in her mind than in the world she inhabits; but though she is mistaken in some of her appraisals of life, doesn't necessarily mean that she needs correction in everything.
At the same time, Dorothea herself has rather outmoded views on marriage, as is made clear by Eliot's tone. The statement that Dorothea wants to marry "great men whose odd habits it would have been glorious piety to endure," exposes Dorothea's outmoded views on marriage, and her particularly interesting personality. Husbands aren't supposed to be some kind of religious trial, and one shouldn't marry in order to seek martyrdom for putting up with their eccentricities; Eliot makes it clear that Dorothea is indeed mistaken, and has much to learn, though her rebuke is soft and conveys no dislike of Dorothea as a character.
Sir James and Casaubon are over for supper, with Sir James trying to appeal to Dorothea, while Dorothea begins to admire Casaubon. Dorothea hopes that Sir James will try to appeal to her sister Celia, rather than to herself, and Dorothea continues her perverse fascination with Casaubon.
Casaubon is the very creature that Dorothea should avoid turning into; he lives completely in his mind, with very little knowledge of the world in which he lives, so it is ironic that Dorothea favors him since these are the very qualities that endanger her good sense. And it is also ironic that Dorothea is so quick to slight the man who listens to her plans for the public good, and seeks to cater to the things she loves to do. That Dorothea tries her best to run from the things that would do her the most good shows a kind of perverseness inherent in her nature, that may do her a bit of harm.
Mr. Brooke holds very unkind views of females, and has no reservations about expressing his somewhat socially acceptable, though incorrect views, before his two nieces. Mr. Brooke represents an older way of thought, that is dying out, but still present; he is of past generations, who firmly believed women to be flighty and irresponsible, and hardly able to do work of merit. Mr. Brooke is very vocal on the theme of gender expectations, and airs many views typically held in his day. In contrast with Mr. Brooke is Sir James, who believes that Dorothea has valuable things to say, and has no compunctions about recognizing the merits of Dorothea's plans.
Another irony is that Dorothea bristles when Mr. Brooke belittles her capabilities, while she herself believes that she can be no more than an assistant to another man's work. Dorothea, too, adopts older, incorrect views about women, views that will do her no good if she really means to make a difference in the world, which she desperately wants to do. There is a great contradiction in Dorothea; on one hand, she totally underestimates her intellect and her ability to be her own guide, and on the other hand, she trusts herself with making workable plans to benefit a great number of people. That Dorothea doesn't trust herself intellectually, yet values her ability to create solutions, is a character issue that needs to be resolved in the course of the book.
Sir James represents progress in society's ideas about women; he is of the opposite opinion of Mr. Brooke, giving some regard to women's ideas and good sense. Though Sir James has not totally given up on established ideas of men's dominance, he is far more permissive of a woman's individuality, as shown by his acceptance Dorothea as a potential wife. Sir James, in this respect, embodies the theme of progress that is seen throughout the novel, in social, technological, and ideological areas.
Dorothea continues to admire Casaubon, especially admiring his vast studies and knowledge. She understands that Casaubon has some regard for her, and feels honored, despite Casaubon's complete inability to show emotion. She is blind to the fact that he wants to marry her to fulfill his needs, and is taking advantage of her naivete in this decision. Casaubon actually tries to show consideration for her in the things he chooses to speak to her about, and in the way he regards her. Still, Dorothea's refusal to see Casaubon as anything other than a beacon of knowledge and good, and Sir James as an annoyance who is useful for carrying out her plans, shows how her stubbornness blinds her in judging people's characters, and in making important decisions as well.
Dorothea's allusion to the "affable archangel" of Paradise Lost, in explaining her feelings about Casaubon, shows a divide between what Dorothea believes to be true, and what is actually so. Dorothea takes Casaubon's pedantic and patronizing qualities to be generosity with his learning; she views everything he says and does through the lens of her good favor, disregarding anything that would give her an unappealing impression of the man. Dorothea certainly means well, but her misappraisal of Causabon's character reinforces the necessity of careful consideration, of thinking about things from all angles, rather than just from an optimistic one. Dorothea is blind to the truth about Casaubon because she chooses to be, and this trait is more foolish than good-natured.
That Dorothea wrests herself away from the things she loves mostriding horses, planning public improvementsilluminates a certain perversion inherent in her nature. It is not a contradiction that she will be happy living with, and its existence, and the way that this flaw keeps her from being happy, foreshadows a necessary self-examination on Dorothea's part. She will need to decide whether to continue with her habits of self-denial and sacrifice, at the detriment of her happiness and greatest desires.
Eliot may not be in favor of Dorothea and Sir James marrying, but she does interject a bit of her own social commentary, stating that Sir James might be well-served by following Dorothea's plans, as other men would benefit from the ideas of strong women. This highlights a particular paradox in Victorian era society; although men are acknowledged as head of their households and leaders outside the home, it is "feminine direction" which creates men from children, and often guides their spouses. Women are not acknowledged as leaders, and they do lead; and Eliot professes a belief that more female leadership would do even more good.
Sir James has acted on Dorothea's plan, and made new, more pleasant cottages for his poor tenants; Dorothea is still determined not to think highly of him, though Celia is rather fond of Sir James. Dorothea admits to her sister that she does not like Sir James, although he plainly likes her; Celia cannot believe that Dorothea could so easily dismiss a man who loves her. When Dorothea gets back, her uncle tells her that he went to visit Casaubon, and Casaubon inquired about marrying Dorothea. Mr. Brooke is against it, because of Casaubon's tendency to mope about and live in books; but, when Dorothea says that she would accept Casaubon over Sir Chettam, Mr. Brooke speaks diplomatically, while laying out before her the realities of marriage. Though Dorothea listens, she does not seem to absorb all the important things he says. Mr. Brooke has brought back a letter of proposal to Dorothea, and she is determined to accept.
Celia, who has remained in the background up until this point, is finally revealed as a very sensible, perceptive girl; she makes the most accurate appraisal of Dorothea's character so far, telling her sister that "you always see what nobody else seesyet you never see what is quite plain" (36). Also, Dorothea prefers to blame people around her when their words or actions make her see, on some unconscious level, that she is wrong; Celia knows about Dorothea's faults, though Dorothea refuses to realize them herself. The theme of hiding in knowledge is introduced, as Dorothea, almost instinctively, turns to books and the library after she realizes that she is acting unfairly toward Sir James. Knowledge is indeed a noble pursuit, but plunging into it to save one's self from confronting reality is definitely unhealthy, and is a habit that Dorothea will need overcome.
Here, Dorothea is confronted with the issue of expectations vs. reality for the first time. Her uncle cautions her on what to expect and what not to expect for marriage; although she says she has some idea of what to expect if she marries Casaubon, in reality she has no idea what it will be like. Dorothea presumes to know more than any sheltered girl of 18 ever could know; but at least she takes Mr. Brooke's advice with some weight. Still, the emphasis on Mr. Brooke's warnings, and Dorothea's attention to those warnings, foreshadow that there is some truth in what Mr. Brooke says. Dorothea indeed will have to face the difference between what she expects from marriage, and what she is going to get.
Dorothea reads Casaubon's letter, and is touched by it; she immediately writes out an acceptance, taking the letter to mean that he feels the same about her as she does about him. Celia has no idea what has happened until Casaubon joins them all for dinner, and she, at least, knows that her sister has made a serious mistake, and perhaps can be swayed from it. Dorothea, however, is convinced that she has made the right choice; Casaubon expresses happiness at their engagement, and Dorothea completely overlooks his lack of passion.
Casaubon's letter is a perfect expose of his stoic, remote character; he refers to his material "need" in wanting her as a wife, and mentions her "fitness to supply that need" (43). But, what Dorothea fails to notice is that he states his feelings as being "sincere devotion," far short of the infatuation/ love with which she regards him. Dorothea sees the letter as a confirmation of Casaubon and her won mutual feelings; what she does not see in the letter is its stark confession that he needs her help and companionship, without the troubles of passion and an equal union. Dorothea loves Casaubon for his learning and his mind; but her vitality and her passion, the two things that energize and support her, will receive no nourishment from Casaubon's cold, emotionless self. She mistakes his practical proposal for a confession of "loving [her]," another instance where her naivete and her blindness to the truth deceive her. Dorothea's shows of passion overwhelm Casaubon, and also betray his feelings that Dorothea owes him something in this union; not once does he ask himself whether he is good enough for her, and this foreshadows a rocky start to their marriage.
Eliot says as much concerning the union-to-be; Eliot draws special attention to Casaubon's frigid rhetoric, which, although it is sincere in its intent, again conveys how emotionless Casaubon really is. Dorothea's inability to see what is before her plainly is a theme that becomes important with this union. As Eliot notes, "Dorothea's faith supplied all that Mr. Casaubon's words seemed to leave unsaid"; Dorothea, for better or for worse, is a "believer," and nothing that Casaubon says or does can truly be unpalatable to her in this blind state.
Eliot makes Dorothea's flaws and oversights very clear, but does not chastise her for them; Eliot seems to hope that Dorothea will find her own way, letting the characters flow through the work, rather than bending them artificially to the author's own desires. Eliot has much in common with Austen, as regards the tone, purpose, treatment of characters, and criticisms of society in their novels; Eliot, like Austen, is able to display human follies and shortcomings, show where their respective societies fall short, and are able to criticize without being disparaging, keeping a rather objective tone throughout their works.
Mrs. Cadwallader is finally introduced, a shrewd, somewhat manipulative, and meddling woman whom Mr. Brooke has little affection for. Mrs. Casaubon and Mr. Brooke talk politics for a little while, which Mr. Brooke does not want to do; finally, Celia tells Mrs. Cadwallader that Dorothea is going to marry Casaubon, which displeases Mrs. Cadwallader, a great advocate for Sir James, greatly. Sir James finds out, and is greatly displeased; but Mrs. Cadwallader tells him that Celia admires him greatly, and won't give him as much trouble. Mrs. Cadwallader is the archetype of the country woman, with her narrow interests, her meddling ways, and her great concern in anything involving people she knows. Sir James is able to conquer his disappointment, and realizes that courting Celia is what he should begin to do.
At last, something of Middlemarch life and politics becomes clear. In such a rural area, everyone seems to know everyone, and also knows everyone else's business as well. It is the kind of place where people show a great amount of concern for one another, although gossip takes precedence over privacy. Politically, Middlemarch is a narrow-minded place; since liberals are the minority, they are looked down upon, and there seem to be great rivalries between people of different parties.
Mrs. Cadwallader is a symbol of how this country life works, with everything out in the open, and the outside world not daring to interfere; she believes in the privileges of good birth and class, and takes great interest in the marriages and relationships of those she knows, even going so far as trying to play matchmaker between Sir James and Dorothea.
However, even she is not to be underestimated; she can sense Dorothea's reasons for marrying Casaubon, and knows how the marriages will go even before it begins. Appearances can be deceiving, even in Middlemarch; sometimes a woman who seems as clueless as Mrs. Cadwallader has the benefit of perceptiveness on her side, and the good judgment to understand people and their hidden motivations.
Pride is another theme running through the course of the book; it is what keeps Dorothea from realizing and admitting she is wrong, stops Casaubon from asking himself whether his upcoming marriage will benefit Dorothea, and smothers Sir James' disappointment in a new surge of hope for his marriage prospects. As Eliot says, pride can be a good thing; in a sensible, even-tempered person like Sir James, pride does not deceive him, and can be a rather beneficial thing. But pride also works in harmful ways, and has certainly doomed Dorothea and Casaubon's marriage even before it has begun.
Casaubon has exhausted his meager reserves of passion already, and looks forward to married life, which he expects will be more pleasant and fulfilled. Not once does he stop and consider his duties for Dorothea, showing himself to be an unsuitable partner who will be hard-pressed to make her happy. Dorothea is eager to begin learning, out of her own desire to be able to understand and know things. Mr. Brooke cautions Casaubon that Dorothea, as a woman, might not be capable of such learning; Dorothea resents such talk, and tries to ignore it.
Dorothea begins to show an inkling of her real desires, beginning with her desire to know Latin and Greek not because it would help her husband, but because it will help her become a more well-learned person. Dorothea and Casaubon are foils in the way they treat their relationship; Dorothea believes it is her duty mostly to give, and is swayed by her emotion and passion. Casaubon feels little passion, and expects to receive without giving; he believes he is owed every comfort in his endless pursuit of knowledge, and thinks of Dorothea as an instrument, rather than as a person. He enjoys her being ignorant, though she does not; he wants dominance in the relationship, and she expects the relationship to be something resembling an exchange, with knowledge and enlightenment as the pay for her pains. Dorothea and Casaubon have nothing in common except their regard for learning; because of this, their marriage will certainly be very trying for both of them, and probably will not be a pleasant experience for either.
Mr. Brooke again shows himself to be a symbol of the old ways of thinking about gender roles and society. His speech about women not being suited to real learning, and needing to be limited to the arts and other light pursuits was widely believed during this time period; although he seems to trust his nieces' good judgment, he still airs his ultra-traditional beliefs about women and their capabilities at every turn. Dorothea is infected by these ideas, with her beliefs about self-sacrifice of women and her possible inability to learn like men do; but, deep down she does not believe in them, as she first demonstrates with her distaste for her uncle's assertion that women should be involved in light, artistic pursuits.
Sir James, in spite of Dorothea's engagement, begins to like visiting the Grange, her home, once again; he is stung by her rejection, and cannot understand her attraction to Casaubon at all. He goes to speak to Mr. Cadwallader, a great friend, to clear his mind about this issue. Sir James cannot help his great pride, but at least he is very civil to Dorothea, and does not let his distaste for her marriage interfere with his plans to make the cottages she proposed.
Sir James compares Dorothea, after her unexplainable rejection, to Desdemona; the allusion is not quite fitting, since Casaubon has none of the passion for his future wife that Othello showed for his. However, it is likely that this comparison will prove more apt than it appears; for, with the inequality of the match, it is certain that Dorothea will be greatly wronged at one point or another by her cold, loveless mate, as Desdemona was by hers.
Sir James does prove to be a good fellow, despite his pride; like many people who know about Dorothea and Casaubon's match, he is greatly concerned, and hopes to bring the girl to her senses. And this desire on his part is due more to his regard for her well-being than his pain at being jilted; Sir James proves himself to be a decent and kind-hearted man, and a good friend to Dorothea's who is certainly worthy of respect and good regard.
Dorothea gets her new home, Lowick, ready for her impending residence there. The house is rather big, but not particularly cheery; in fact, it rather resembles Casaubon in its looks. Dorothea, however, finds it agreeable, as she finds Casaubon also; but, chances are, she will soon find that she is mistaken, as the newness and novelty of this entire situation wears off. Celia herself dislikes anything that Dorothea accepts, and as such, dislikes Lowick and Casaubon equally.
Casaubon introduces the party to Will Ladislaw, his cousin; he dislikes Dorothea immediately, because of the way she speaks poorly of herself before others, and because she is marrying his sour, humorless cousin. Will is young, rather handsome, and an artist as well; he seems much better suited to Dorothea, though a better match than Casaubon is certainly not hard to find. Ladislaw is without occupation, so Casaubon is, reluctantly, providing for him; but Casaubon and his cousin seem not to get along at all.
Obvious parallels between Casaubon and his house become clear, and the parallels are bad omens for Dorothea's marriage. The house is stern, melancholy-looking, and rather plain and uninviting, qualities which Casaubon also possesses; any chance of the house, or Casaubon, becoming more cheery and friendly depend upon Dorothea, though the challenge is great and will probably be too difficult to achieve. The dour look of the house, combined with unanimous displeasure in the area about the marriage, and Casaubon's ungenerous, cold demeanor mean doom for the marriage, even before it starts; too many events, judgments, and signs have foreshadowed a bad end for the marriage, and taken together, they cannot be denied.
Dorothea seems to be overcompensating for her youth and "ignorance" by insisting on being the obedient, weak-willed wife, though these qualities are not in her nature. In comparison, Celia does seem a bit trivial in some of her judgments and dislikes, but Celia and Dorothea are girls not even out of their teens; at least Celia acts like the girl she is, while her sister belies her own nature with her attempts to be as agreeable as possible to Casaubon.
Ladislaw certainly seems like an interesting character; he immediately senses the falseness of Dorothea's profession of ignorance, and figures that she and his cousin must be ill-suited, or else she is a very disagreeable person. Ladislaw is young, and seems rash, like Dorothea can be; he is also a person of strong opinions, with a great deal of pride. Indeed, Dorothea and Ladislaw seem to have more in common even at this brief meeting than she and Casaubon ever could; he does become more important later in the work, and some kind of conflict between Ladislaw and Casaubon is foreshadowed by their mutual dislike, and Casaubon's distaste for providing for Ladislaw, and for his non-academic temperament.
Ladislaw leaves suddenly for Europe; he has a view of life and work completely opposed to Casaubon's, and is much more impulsive and full of passion than his dull cousin. Casaubon, to his credit, does try to be more joyful about his marriage, and to understand his young bride better; but, he is fundamentally unsuited to this relationship, and cannot make himself more amenable to it. They decide to go to Rome on their honeymoon, a decision partially motivated by Casaubon's single-minded pursuit of information, to the detriment of his fragile relationship with Dorothea.
Casaubon and Dorothea attend a local dinner party, where many of the prominent citizens of the town are discussing their displeasure at Casaubon and Dorothea's marriage, and the arrival of the new doctor, Lydgate. Many of the townspeople prove completely pedestrian in their opinions, liking decorative, weak-willed women, and disapproving of any experimentation, especially relating to medicine. These are people who like routine and tradition, and will be hard-pressed to accept any progress or any outsiders in their community.
Eliot again proves herself an objective narrator, bringing to light Casaubon's good traits and explanations for his less desirable ones; Casaubon is definitely not as bad as he seems to be, and does deserve some sympathy for his shortcomings. Casaubon is a very lonely man, whose hopes of feeling happier and less lonely upon marrying are dashed; his high expectations of finally giving up bachelorhood prove false, and Casaubon does struggle to try and draw more emotion out of himself.
Dorothea, to her credit, is also misledby society's requirement that women derive their fulfillment from men, and do not seek to achieve on their own. Dorothea believes that she will gain the knowledge and the purpose she needs from Casaubon because he is a man of learning, and if he cannot give her this, no one can; Dorothea is too young to see that society is often wrong, and that she has to gain her purpose and drive from within. Metaphorically, she wants the lamp of knowledge, but thinks she needs to seek the lamp's oil elsewhere, as Eliot puts it; Dorothea does not see the fault in this metaphor, that she can only get this oil from herself.
The townspeople, as seen at the dinner party, are definitely a mixed bag; they do have an overly harsh opinion of Casaubon, but on the other hand, are perfectly correct in their appraisal of the marriage's prospects. They are unfriendly to the coming of progress, which could be a very negative characteristic; and their tendency to be wary of outsiders is also unfair. The people of Middlemarch, like the many characters in the book, have both positive and negative qualities; they are human, and hence they are flawed, but as Eliot points out, we should not be quick to condemn them for things they cannot control.
Lydgate, the new doctor, is already enamoured of Rosamond Vincy, the mayor's daughter. She is attractive and affable, but he is not economically set for marriage yet. Lydgate believes that women should be quiet, obedient, and beautiful; he is not looking for a partner, but rather an adornment, for a wife. Rosamond seems determined to escape from the tangled web of Middlemarch marriages, in which case Lydgate seems suited to her. Rosamond's brother, Fred Vincy, is an aimless young man who failed to get his degree at college, and seems to do very little besides hang about the house and bother his sister.
Lydgate embodies many of the misconceptions that men have about women, and believes that the qualities that would be considered shortcomings in men are well-suited for women. Like Mr. Brooke, he believes women should not be knowledgeable, opinionated, or make decisions; he wants a woman who is pleasant, shallow, pretty, and vain. Rosamond Vincy is exactly this, a woman who delights in fripperies, and embodies all of the useless qualities that society of the time prized in women. Rosamond Vincy represents the "ideal" Victorian woman, with all her foibles and failings, and Eliot uses her to criticize this ideal, and show how little service it does to women and men alike.
Rosamond is also the embodiment of the social-climbing snob as well; she cannot bear to think that her mother was the daughter of a simple innkeeper, or that her father's family is merely middle-class. Rosamond has no idea of the value of money, nor does she have any conception of how little such things as class matter in the scheme of things. Lydgate, too, is one of this kind; he too would like to deny his origins, and pretend that he is better or higher class than he actually is.